The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged hamas
Hamas, the Islamic State, and the Gaza–Sinai Crucible

Interesting summary, by Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold, of the quandary Hamas finds itself in with regards to the Islamic State's supporters in Gaza and Sinai:

In sum, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip is actively involved in keeping the broader Salafi-jihadi camp from stirring up internal trouble or goading Israeli action against the strip, which includes preventing strong ties between Gaza- and Sinai-based jihadis. Likewise, to end its isolation, Hamas’s political leaders also hope to reverse a deterioration of relations with Egypt, even though the group’s military leaders are deepening their relations with some figures within the very same Salafi-jihadi camp that is fighting Egypt—and which Hamas is fighting in Gaza. This is because the ongoing economic restrictions and aggressive campaign against the tunnel economy have given Hamas’s military wing a powerful incentive to deal with any group—jihadi, criminal, or both—that could provide the weapons and financial resources it needs. In this sense, the Hamas–IS relationship is primarily driven by economic transactions. Such ties, however, also result in ad hoc cooperation, and according to Egyptian and Israeli intelligence sources, the Qassam Brigades are selling or providing weapons and offering training to IS-linked fighters with the goal of clearing its “lifeline” passage. 

So much of the mess in Sinai (and of course Gaza) is due to this disastrous blockade.

AsidesThe Editorshamas, IS, sinai, gaza
What Hamas wants (mostly from Egypt?)

Gaza Clash Escalates With Deadliest Israeli Strike -

David Kirkpatrick reports:

Reda Fahmy, a member of Egypt’s upper house of Parliament and of the nation’s dominant Islamist party, who is following the talks, said Hamas’s position was just as unequivocal. “Hamas has one clear and specific demand: for the siege to be completely lifted from Gaza,” he said. “It’s not reasonable that every now and then Israel decides to level Gaza to the ground, and then we decide to sit down and talk about it after it is done. On the Israeli part, they want to stop the missiles from one side. How is that?”

He added: “If they stop the aircraft from shooting, Hamas will then stop its missiles. But violence couldn’t be stopped from one side.”

Hamas’s aggressive stance in the cease-fire talks is the first test of the group’s belief that the Arab Spring and the rise in Islamist influence around the region have strengthened its political hand, both against Israel and against Hamas’s Palestinian rivals, who now control the West Bank with Western backing.

It also puts intense new pressure on President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was known for his fiery speeches defending Hamas and denouncing Israel. Mr. Morsi must now balance the conflicting demands of an Egyptian public that is deeply sympathetic to Hamas and the Palestinian cause against Western pleadings to help broker a peace and Egypt’s need for regional stability to help revive its moribund economy.

Indeed, the Egyptian-led cease-fire talks illustrate the diverging paths of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the original Egyptian Islamist group. Hamas has evolved into a more militant insurgency and is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, while the Brotherhood has effectively become Egypt’s ruling party. Mr. Fahmy said in an interview in March that the Brotherhood’s new responsibilities required a step back from its ideological cousins in Hamas, and even a new push to persuade the group to compromise.

Lifting the blockade would be unlikely to happen on the Israeli side, so it's essentially about the Egyptian side. Morsi did not want to be tackling this so early, and any solution will be quite complicated. He has not lifted the blockade thus far, although he could have, and that's because the Egyptian security establishment is nervous about being made responsible for Gaza — and the idea that the Israelis will just dump it on Egypt's lap and make Cairo responsible for it. Can't blame them on that.

Also see this.

At Ramallah protest, Hamas’ green overcomes Fatah's yellow

 At Ramallah protest, Hamas’ green overcomes Fatah's yellow

Amira Hass, reporting for Haaretz on a protest in Ramallah: 

This wasn't just a show of strength by Hamas, it was a show of weakness by the groups making up the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Fatah. The few PLO members who took part in the rally were outnumbered by Hamas people, and when Fatah supporters – probably members of the security forces in civilian clothes – tried to shout out slogans advocating Palestinian unity, they were drowned out by the Hamas protesters, yelling the name of their organization.
More on Hamas' disappointment with Egypt

More on Hamas' disappointment with Egypt

From Nic Pelham's latest NYRB piece:

But Egypt remains the missing piece in Hamas’s regional jigsaw puzzle. With the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s ideological twin, the Gazan leadership anticipated a rapprochement, and on the night of Mohammed Morsi’s election victory, Hamas loyalists cheered in the streets. Hamas ministers prepared feasibility studies for a highway stretching from North Africa’s farthest reaches to Gaza, and appealed to Gulf labor markets to absorb Gaza’s jobless graduates. The Gaza-Egypt border crossing at Rafah “will open fully and Egypt will supply fuel, medicine, and electricity. No one will be refused entry,” mused Mahmoud al-Zahar, a veteran Hamas leader, as we sat in his garden in July on his return from a meeting with Morsi.

But after the initial welcome, Egypt backed off, swayed both by pressure from western powers negotiating an IMF package and by its security forces’ claims that Gaza was complicit in the August 5 attack. In late September, Prime Minister Haniya arrived in Cairo at the head of a twenty-man Gazan delegation only to find his anticipated audience with Morsi declined and his requests for upgrading ties rebuffed. Egypt, he discovered, remained noncommittal on the Qatari fuel it had blocked after the August 5 attack, on boosting Egypt’s supply of electricity and water to Gaza, and above all, on the launch of a free trade zone on the Gaza-Egypt border that would make Hamas a legitimate trading partner. In a further slight, the foreign ministry described Haniya as a visiting guest, not an official.

Passenger crossings between Gaza and Egypt at the main Rafah terminal, which had reached almost quarter of a million since the start of the year, fell back to levels of a year earlier. And at their common border, Egyptian bulldozers began digging up tunnels with a tenacity Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had rarely shown. Tunnel traffic dwindled to a third of pre-August 5 levels: had it not been for a significant easing of Israel’s closures on Gaza the impact would have been intense. In a huff, Hamas removed the banner of a smiling Morsi and Haniya holding hands against the backdrop of the pyramids from the walls of its Gaza City parliament, and replaced it with a large portrait of Qatar’s Emir.

Pelham also scores an interview with leading Gaza-based jihadist Abu Walid al-Maqdisi.

Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

✚ Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

One of the best analyses of the fallout from the Sinai attack I've read, from The Economist, worth a long quote:

For years Hamas has suppressed jihadists groups in Gaza, especially those espousing puritanical Salafist ideals that hark back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamas sought to prevent them from attacking hairdressers, internet cafés, Christians and other supposedly decadent influences. But it has been less eager to curb their missile attacks on Israel or to stop them infiltrating Egypt.

More recently, however, Hamas has closed the tunnel complex to slow infiltration and gun-running. If Hamas really wants to please the Egyptian government, it would arrest the 200-odd jihadists still at large in Gaza. Hisham Saidini, a jihadist preacher whom Hamas had freed soon after Ramadan started last month, defended the killing of Egypt’s soldiers on the grounds that they were protecting Jews.

Israel, too, will have to let both Egypt’s security forces and those of Hamas in Gaza control their borders more effectively. Israel may have to allow Hamas to operate in a buffer zone along Gaza’s eastern border. Egypt’s air attack on the jihadists on August 8th was the first time that air power had been deployed in anger by Egypt in Sinai since the war with Israel in 1973, and was co-ordinated with Israel in advance. The Israelis say they have had several discreet high-level talks with the Egyptians since Mr Morsi was sworn in a month ago.

The three governments also need to agree on new economic arrangements. For the past five years, the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that fostered smuggling through the tunnels has hugely benefited people in Sinai who are beyond the law—of any country. Opening the borders to legal traffic and trade should lessen the power of jihadists and smugglers in Sinai and Gaza, and thus strengthen the arm of the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem.

Mr Morsi seems well aware of the dilemma. Egypt’s main military academy and senior civil posts have been opened up to the Bedouin, and plans are afoot to improve the peninsula’s several hundred villages, many of which have no piped water. He had already made a point, early in his presidency, of visiting Sinai. He has also hosted Hamas leaders. Before the Sinai attack, he received Mr Haniyeh and discussed definitively lifting Gaza’s siege.

Israel may also have to consider co-operating with Hamas, its avowed enemy. After the attack on August 5th, Israel’s leaders were careful to blame global jihadists rather than Gazans or Hamas. Although Egypt has yet fully to open the crossing at Rafah, Israel has already reopened its one nearby at Kerem Shalom, for trade if not yet for people. With the influence of Islamists in Syria likely to grow in the event of Bashar Assad’s fall, Israel may have to decide whether to accommodate itself to the likes of Hamas lest a still fiercer version of Islamism comes to the fore.

Reports: Ismail Haniyeh seen leading in Hamas Politburo vote

Bye bye Khaled Mashaal?

Is Hamas Politburo leader Khaled Mashaal’s constellation dimming? He’s already announced he’ll be stepping down, and whether or not his next step to be a more active international leader in the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, if he keeps his word he may not be the man eventually presiding over the (stalled) implementation of “unity” agreement with Fatah that has been sitting dead in the water since Hamas put forward terms that Fatah did not (and could not) accept.

Formally, the talks are on hold because of these internal elections, which occur over several rounds and go on through May[1], after which talks in Cairo will return the main players to the negotiating table. Haaretz has reported that Haniyeh bested Mashaal in the internal vote, and that as a result Mashaal is likely to stay on but turn over military and budgetary oversight to Hanieyh. Xinhua offered more specific details on what has been transpiring in these elections: Haniyeh reportedly secured an “unprecedented” 85 percent of the votes, though his deputies struggled to make gains against Mashaal’s associates and members of the armed wing of Hamas (along with two prisoners released in last year’s prisoner exchange, who seem to have received a massive sympathy vote).

All reports rely on anonymous sourcing, and Hamas has officially denied the Haaretz report, though no word has followed about the Xinhua coverage. It is, however, generally accepted that Hamas is conducting internal elections at this time and that the results will greatly affect the outcome of talks with Abu Mazen over the stalled “unity” agreement.

Haniyeh has buttressed his position within Hamas thanks to the group’s departure from Syria. And he has been making hay from his public positions on the 2011 “unity” agreement with Abu Mazen. His opposition to it was widely noted, as was his apparent change of heart towards it, developments which I’ve discussed before at The Arabist here, here and here.

At this point, Hamas has a “moderate” and a “hardline” faction contesting the “unity” agreement. Internal rivalries have much to do with this, with all parties looking to secure maximum concessions from other Palestinian factions (inside Gaza and out) in the event of a reconciliation; Hamas will not make concessions to Fatah or others cheaply. And this factionalism plays out in terms of deciding on a ceasefire or a policy of “recognition” for Israel’s 1967 borders that goes along with the PLO’s terms, since accepting those terms would require Hamas to seriously reconsider its image, and the role of armed struggle against Israel, in the Arab world and in Gaza. Hamas is, for now, able to avoid making such decisions due to the present division of Palestinian leadership and the willingness to let Abu Mazen “handle” the negotiating track while making noises about future referendums for any treaties the Palestinian Authority signs with the Israelis.

Despite these rivalries, there seems to be one overriding concern in the movement’s leadership right now, and that is the determination not to go through a second Cast Lead, either by initiating hostilities or taking actions the IDF would seize upon as cause for another war: the leadership - civil, party and military – all know this would be a disaster for Hamas because while they are left reeling, the disruption of a war would likely benefit Islamic Jihad and other rivals. Hence, the feelers for new alliances in the Arab world since the Arab Spring and concessions to Israeli demands that have occurred under Mashaal’s tenure.

The regional alignments are changing, most significantly in Egypt due to the revolution and in Turkey due to cooling ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, and Hamas sees new opportunities (which the current Israeli government almost to a man sees as new threats). Factored beyond Hamas’s control in Syria have forced it to reevaluate its relationship with Iran (and, of course, Syria as well – unlike Hezbollah, Hamas is not standing by Assad’s side). Some Arab Islamists, notably the Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods, along with Turkey and Qatar, shall surely welcome any moves that would diminish of Iranian influence in the region.

The more “moderate” faction - the faction most often engaged in diplomacy and until several months ago, operating out of Damascus under Mashaal - is willing to discuss, if not make, concessions in Hamas’s ideological underpinnings in order to survive. The “hardline” faction – again, also recognizing the opportunities and uncertainties of the moment in the region – is less opposed to reconciliation in principle, but it seems more determined than the “moderates” to secure maximum benefit for its faction in a future “unity” government.

Retaining control at home is key; the rivalry with Islamic Jihad being one of the main examples of this fixation. At the same time, the top Islamists of Gaza continue to debate whether or not they should “allow” large protest demonstrations against Israel; Mashaal has expressed support for such protests against Israel; his rivals are leery of sanctioning any popular reformist current, not least because of the challenges Hamas would face in a freer political climate from Fatah, and also from smaller Islamist organizations.

Haniyeh is already the “de facto PM” of Gaza and, after Mashaal, one of the group’s most visible leaders in the international arena - notwithstanding Moussa Abu Marzook’s recent Forward Magazine interview discussing Hamas’s stance towards a ceasefire and continued “non-recognition” question. Despite his stance on “recognition” being less compromising than Mashaal’s, or even Haniyeh’s that the Gazan apparatchik - he helped build up the movement’s widely popular social services program - even chose to give such an interview is suggesting the movement is reevaluating its options towards Israel, and cognizant that it ought to be doing more work on polishing its image in the West; when Karl Vick at TIME refers to Hamas’s “mainstreaming,” he means it in that sense.

I now wonder that when Haniyeh became more conciliatory a few months back over Mashaal’s public position, if his acquiescence was at all related to any backroom dealings happening today over the voting, like perhaps Mashaal’s actually staying on as Politburo chief/the fast-tracking of a Damascene deputy close to him, or rumors that Haniyeh will get to be chief of party in Gaza, which would be an unprecedented move.

And some Gazan sources debate whether or not the showings in the elections so far signal either a victory or a defeat for either Mashaal or Haniyeh since all of the votes are not in. The Hamas election process, which is also going to select legislators for the Shura Council, is notoriously oblique - partly because, as Gulf News notes, “Hamas traditionally keeps much of its leadership structure secret to avoid exposing it to attacks by Israel.”

It would be speculative to tease this thought out any further, but the fate of the “unity” agreement in the comings months will depend on how Haniyeh, if he holds his lead and Mashaal is indeed prepared to bow out, may cut deals with Mashaal’s deputies and the Qassam Brigades leaders who are both reportedly making gains in the elections. And the armed forces are debating these matters as well: military commanders have split over the terms of the "unity’ agreement (the rejectionists, according to Saudi media, have sided with the less-compromising Mahmoud Zahar).

Elections and interviews aside, though, Hamas is sending mixed messages; firstly to keep Israel guessing and secondly, to air a controlled narrative of its internal debates for public consumption. But the show is not really being put on for Israel or the US, or even Fatah’s, benefit, even though sending messages to these actors signals negotiators over the nuts and bolts of the “unity” agreement. Hemmed in by the IDF’s deterrence capabilities Hamas is, as it was when Mashaal first went to Qatar to herald the “unity” agreement (drawing Haniyeh’s ire in the process), left with little more than talk today, talk that has clearly left no one satisfied in the region except Hamas’s most hardline cadres. Hamas likes to boast, and its ideologues dream of somehow defeating the “Zionist entity,” but after being so badly decimated by the Israelis and undermined in the West Bank, its leaders must be content today with limited provocations and ruling over Gaza. Hamas, for its part, suggests - through Zahar - that any attempts to restart negotiations with Israel are little more than a means of keeping up appearances for the Oslo Accords, which are held in such low regard by the “peace partners” that even the Israeli negotiatior Yossi Geilin and his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qurei say should be done away with to restart peace talks.

One thing analysts ought to remember: Palestinian factionalism - and Israeli/Western spooks enamored of “divide and rule” tactics to that end - is a significant part of why Hamas has scored popular victories that continually elude Fatah, increasingly reduced to censorship within the West Bank to silence its critics.

When Al Quds reported that Hamas was apparently letting Fatah members back into Gaza, Fatah’s “leadership commission’s” danced around the actions of former Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, whose security forces tried and failed to bring down Hamas in Gaza following the Islamist electoral triumph there in 2006. That this committee will actually amount to a display of real trust following that brief civil war remains to be seen, and one wonders if Fatah will actually reciprocate by easing up pressure on Hamas members in the West Bank. The continued division here, resulting from Hamas’s 2007 crackdown on Fatah in response to Dahlan’s actions, prolongs the status quo - or, more precisely, inches the region towards a situation in which the status quo will be normalized.

  1. The elections take place in “Gaza; the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where it operates underground; Israeli prisons where thousands of Hamas members are held; and exile where most of the top leadership is based.”  ↩

Next in Gaza, Palestinian elections or Israeli preemption?

Paul Mutter contributed this commentary — and I have a note at the end.

Ebaa Reqez, an activist who helped organized the “March 15” Movement demonstrations in 2011 that laid the groundwork for the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement I’ve been tracking this week commented on the political sectarianism that is undermining a deal that was always a tenuous proposition:

In Gaza many of the organizers support Fatah and want to end the rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, they want to oust Fatah. And they both used March 15 and afterwards to try to get what they want.

This contest of wills and patronage was clearly illustrated three weeks ago when Hamas presented its “conditions” for becoming part of a unity government, conditions that Fatah partisans – even if they were willing to defy Israeli and American pressure – would balk at because of the key ministries Hamas was demanding control over. The talks in Cairo that were supposed to mark the next step in Palestinian reconciliation are now on hold, and spokesmen from both parties are blaming each other for the collapse of talks.

Abbas’s position is extremely difficult. The West Bank’s economy and his political machine are both still heavily dependent on foreign aid, and Tel Aviv has final authority over Ramallah’s tax stream – joining with Hamas would certainly led to a freeze on some, if not all, of Fatah’s finances by Israel and the U.S.

Hamas also finds itself in a weaker position today now that it has yet again had to endure an exchange between the IDF and other militant organizations that was precipitated by the assassination of a Popular Committees leader. Hamas leader Mohammad Zahhar, who has blustered about “resistance” against Israel and made much of opposition to the Doha deal, reportedly implored the Egyptians to broker a ceasefire before things got out of hand – i.e., Israel started targeting Hamas members. Zahhar is making a bid for power as a “rejectionist” – it’s not quite clear how much of a “rejectionist” he’d be in practice when facing down the IDF.

The latest round of fighting in Gaza has emboldened those Israeli officials who desire another Operation Cast Lead, the winter 2008–9 ground and air assault by the IDF that killed hundreds of Palestinians and displaced many more in an effort to severely damage Hamas’ military capabilities. Now, arguing that Islamic Jihad is being pushed by its Iranian backers to take more active measures against Israel, Israeli officials are increasingly alluding to the “failure” of Cast Lead’s “deterrence.”

One would hope that in admitting concern over Iranian machinations in Gaza, Israeli strategists wouldtake care to avoid being goaded into escalation, but this does not appear to be the case. A proposal from the right-leaning Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies – titled “The Opportunity in Gaza” – is indicative of the case made for escalation. The authors argue that Israel ought to conduct a ground incursion into Gaza soon to “destroy most of the terrorist infrastructure and the leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organizations,” at least in part as preparation for military against Iran soon thereafter. “Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz stated several times that a large-scale operation in Gaza is inevitable,” the authors argue, and even though they acknowledge that this effort will not finish off Hamas or any other groups (and may even lead to new ones forming), they chillingly note that “Israel will probably have to ‘mow the grass’ again,” meaning Israel should plan to bomb and invade Gaza every few years for the foreseeable future. While BESA’s influence in Israeli politics is debated (think tanks in Israel aren’t as well-established as their counterparts in the U.S.), in citing Gantz, the report is indeed representative of the preemption mentality in the IDF and Likud (the “cordon-and-swat” approach, as former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar puts it).

One also wonders what Hamas’s leaders think of such calls to arms. They’ve avoided initiating a conflict so far, but with Israeli officials calling for preemption, they have less and less to gain by holding their fighters back except a vague hope that they won’t end up fighting a losing battle soon. Plus, every death in Gaza brought about by the IAF popularizes the smaller groups Hamas seeks to rein in, much to its detriment.

I said last year that Hamas had secured a measure of initiative in the region thanks to the Arab Spring, but now, I am not so sure it can retain it. On the other side of Israel, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are hapless, and within the country, the Likud Party grows ever more bellicose. I do not think elections are in Gaza’s forecast. Though it is in the interests of only the most hardline Islamists or hawkish Zionists that escalation continue, with every new rocket fired and bomb dropped, Hamas and Israel seem to be stuck on the path that leads to a new Cast Lead within the next few years.

Ed. note: I would also factor into this the recent agreement between Hamas and Egypt supplied natural gas for Gaza’s powerplant. Hamas had paid up the initial deposit on the transaction but the Egyptians — specifically General Intelligence — have relented on delivering the gas, causing long blackouts. In the short term, Gaza’s energy dependency on Egypt gives the Egyptians leverage (at least until the Muslim Brothers decide to make it a political issue domestically). In the longer term it fits within an Israeli desire to shed responsibility for Gaza, which is why the Egyptians are now asking for the gas to be transfered via Israel rather than directly to Gaza. What this shows is that post-uprising dynamics are fluid and the beneficiaries are not necessarily obvious — as Hamas is now finding itself reorienting away from Iran and Syria and towards possibily tougher new patrons in Qatar and Egypt. — Issandr.

Palestinian reconciliation: Hamas' opening gambit

Hamas and Fatah leaders have been meeting Cairo this week to continue hammering out the details of the third unity agreement they’ve tried to reach in the past five years. The agreement would give Mahmoud Abbas the authority to appoint a transitional cabinet, sidelining Hamas and, in theory, his own Fatah party. Officially, Hamas’s top leaders - Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh - have committed to them. But Al-Ahram, Egypt’s state-owned daily, is reporting that Hamas is determined to secure their own concessions from Abbas in exchange for allowing him to assume the post of interim prime minister. It is not clear which Hamas leaders are pushing these measures, though if there is a concerted effort from within the group, I would not be surprised to see the name of their #2 man in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, pop up.

If this debate is indeed going on as Al-Ahram describes, it first of all shows that despite efforts to show unity, Hamas’s Gazan leadership is still livid over Khaled Mashaal’s decision to conclude the Doha agreement without consulting them first, and is determined to ensure that it gets a “fair share” of the spoils, which are spelled out in no uncertain terms:

“conditions also feature Hamas’s selection of one of its leaders to assume the post of deputy prime minister and handling of three ministerial portfolios which include the Interior, Justice and Finance ministries … Hamas also wants to select 15% of the members of this government”

The three ministries named are the ones Hamas would most need in order to reinsert itself in the West Bank after losing much of its organizational apparatus there following the 2007 split with Fatah, because since then, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority have cooperated to root out Hamas operatives in the West Bank. This is simply pragmatic self-interest on Hamas’s part. Control of the Justice and Interior ministries would put the movement in a position to influence court decisions and to control appointments/hirings among the internal security forces. Given the power of the purse, a Hamas Minister of Finance would be able to channel money to favored projects and organizations: Hamas’s successes have, since the 1980s in part stemmed from the popular support its charitable and welfare activities generate.

[Editor’s note: Hard to see of a MoF controlled by Hamas would be dealt with by the international community that finances the PA! Or how a Hamas Interior Minister would be accepted by security forces that are basically Fatah gangs trained by US forces! This plan implies a break with the US, at the very least.]

In theory, it would only be fair to give the office of deputy prime minister to Ismail Haniyeh since he is the de facto prime minister of Gaza, or to Hamas’s legislative leader, Ismail al-Ashkar - yet Abbas and Mashaal seem to have already ruled out doing such a thing while meeting in Doha.

These demands are not at all surprising, but they could become yet another stumbling block on the road to fulfilling the unity agreement.

Hamas might settle for some compromise - its leaders, if they are serious about implementing the unity agreement, must know that Abbas will not agree to all of these demands - but a compromise by either Abbas or Mashaal here would be hard for their followers to swallow. Al-Ahram notes that Abbas “will [likely] refuse these conditions, as he is insisting on choosing figures who are accepted on the international level to occupy these sensitive positions.” He’d have to reverse his position, or agree to allot certain ministerial posts to Hamas members ahead of the legislative and prime ministerial elections that are theoretically going to be held in a few months. Either way, he’d look like he was caving in and end up antagonizing both the US and Israel by making concessions. Israel has made clear it will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas members, and giving any of these portfolios to Hamas members would jeopardize distribution of US aid to the Palestinian National Authority.

The talks in Cairo are now reportedly on hold as a result of Hamas’s demands.

Hamas and a Palestinian Spring?

The “Arab Spring” brought hundreds of thousands of activists out into public plazas in the Middle East. Many of those activists have new foreign policy visions in mind - ones that worry both Israel and the U.S. - but so far few have acted to change the status quo. An established Islamist organization stands the best chance of making rhetoric reality. Hamas’ leaders are ideally positioned to accomplish this within the Palestinian political sphere. The Arab Spring has given the Islamist party – still proscribed as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU and the U.S. – the space in which to turn its military weakness into diplomatic strength.

Evoking the “Arab Spring,” Hamas’ outgoing leader Khaled Mashaal has announced the organization will now commit to popular protests to confront Israel. He has also announced that Hamas might be willing to be party to a two-state solution taking the pre-war 1967 borders between Israel and Jordan as starting points, reiterating a statement made earlier in 2011. At the same time, Hamas is also successfully pursuing membership in the PLO, and may yet reach a deal with Fatah to actually hold the long-deferred Palestinian legislative elections in May 2012.

As Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar’el argues, “Hamas and Fatah are reconciling - not because of Israel’s beaux yeux [how it will look], but because it is in the Palestinians’ interest, and new regional circumstances laid the groundwork for this to come about.”

The terrorist attacks in southern Israel this summer – possibly the work of Egyptian militants rather than Palestinians – provoked a plea for restraint from Hamas, which Israel held responsible for the attacks. Hamas understood that the volatile regional situation at the time – Egypt convulsing with further popular demonstrations, SCAF launching a counterinsurgency operation in the Sinai, Tel Aviv fuming at Ramallah – did not offer it an opportunity to use a military confrontation with Israel to its benefit.

It is premature to suggest, as Jane’s Intelligence Review has, that Hamas might be on “the brink of renouncing [all] armed resistance and moving to a policy of nonviolent resistance to Israel.” Mashaal is now preparing to step down from his post, reportedly to preempt a leadership struggle within the organization over his emphasis on demonstrations and the 1967 borders. And, Mashaal told the Associated Press “as long as there is an occupation on our land, we have the right to defend our land by all means, including military resistance.”

“Hamas … will lead the people towards uprising after uprising until all of Palestine is liberated,” Ismail Haniyeh boasted at a rally in December. The Gazan prime minister is indeed optimistic – at least in public – that the winds are blowing in his movement’s favor: “Gaza was a main reason for the Arab Spring. It was people’s anger at the regimes that co-operated with Israel and did not recognise the government here.” “Israel,” he told The Independent recently, “knows the strategic environment is changing.”

But for all Haniyeh’s bluster about new uprisings (intifadas), Hamas marked the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead without firing a shot in anger at Israel. Although it has continued to claim responsibility for attacks targeting Israelis in retaliation for deaths of Hamas members, since 2009, more and more attacks (which are declining in number, overall) seem to be being carried out by other groups, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees for Resistance. Hamas does not want to provoke a second Cast Lead.

Haniyeh’s intifada references unsettle Israelis. It seems, looking to Mashaal, that Hamas will increasingly try to evoke the nonviolent demonstrations of the First Intifada, and not the terrors of the Second, as protestors continue to take to the streets in Arab capitals. But, one suspects, Hamas will try to ensure that demonstrations are carefully organized.

Hamas’s public (and internal) debates over armed struggle suggest an internal debate not unlike the one take took place in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the early 1970s. After a series of riots in Northern Ireland in 1969 exposed the military weakness of the IRA, more militant voices in the Irish Republican camp split off to form the Provisional IRA, and (a few years later), the Irish National Liberation Army, both of which carried out bombings and assassinations for the next 29 years. The “Official IRA,” though not immediately giving up violence, pursued a ceasefire and subsequently focused more on political activism as “Official Sinn Féin.”

Like the IRA then, Hamas now has fewer military options than it did in 2008, or 2000. Several cells reportedly moving Gazan operatives and weapons into the West Bank in the fall of 2011 were arrested by Israeli and Palestinian security forces. And, as Uri Avnery suggests “By joining the PLO, he [Mashaal] is committing Hamas to the Oslo agreements and all the other official deals between Israel and the PLO.”

Tensions within Gaza complicate matters for Hamas: Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and the Popular Committees for Resistance are determined to continue their armed struggle. Yaakov Katz, the defense correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, believes that Iran, unhappy with Hamas’ lack of progress (and efforts to distance itself from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad) as of late is now funneling more support to Islamic Jihad. The Popular Committees, which Israel first blamed for the August attacks in southern Israel, could launch attacks that would lead to the IDF launching a full-scale operation against Gaza. There is strong pressure within Israel for doing so even in the absence of such actions by the Islamists: IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz regards Cast Lead as a success and, alongside several Israeli parliamentarians, wants to conduct “a major offensive” in Gaza to reinforce Cast Lead’s “deterrence” sooner rather than later. Writes Katz, “Benny Gantz has ordered the Southern Command to complete preparations for a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip that could be launched within the near future.”

With Islamist successes in the region, it will be harder for Tel Aviv to marginalize Hamas. And with Israel reportedly refusing to give ground in East Jerusalem and the rest of West Bank over the settlements at talks in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority is increasingly losing patience. Israel might have the military initiative, but Hamas has a chance to secure the political one. Whether or not it formally pursues it depends on how the Gazan and Syrian headquarters of the movement - Mashaal has operated out of Damascus, while Haniyeh is based in Gaza - reach an intra-party accord on the matter. Mashaal’s statements have yet to be voted on by the Shura Council of Hamas, but a vote is expected within the coming months. Reconciliation with Fatah and integration into the PLO may depend on who replaces Mashaal. The regional winds may be conducive to Islamist ships, but Hamas has not yet decided how to sail into them.

The future (or lack thereof) of Hamas in Syria

Good reporting from Tobias Buck in the FT on Hamas' predicament in Syria:

The Syrian leader is outraged that Hamas, a movement he has sponsored and nurtured for years, is refusing to back his regime against the uprising that started earlier this year. Relations are reportedly at breaking point.

Fearful of retribution, and alarmed by the collapse of order, Hamas has evacuated many of its lower-level officials from Syria. “We feel that the situation is very dangerous for Hamas in Syria,” admitted one Gaza-based Hamas official. “They [the Assad regime] are very angry with us, they want us to give support just like Hizbollah [the Lebanese Shia movement] did. But this is impossible for Hamas. The Syrian regime is killing its own people.”

Hamas leaders are keenly aware it can be dangerous to pick the wrong side. “No one wants to make the mistake that [former Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat made in Kuwait,” said Mostafa Alsawaf, the editor of Alresalah, a pro-Hamas newspaper in the Gaza Strip.

Arafat backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and after Iraq’s defeat Kuwait took revenge by expelling some 450,000 Palestinian expatriate workers. Syria is home to about 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants – a potentially huge target for retribution.

The article goes on to note that neither possible alternative headquarters for the Hamas leadership, Egypt and Qatar, are ready to take them in. But that might change, in time, since the movement has friends there.

Last week, flying back from a trip in Rome, I noticed a group of of men dressed in suits with closely-cropped beards and Syrian flag pins on their lapels. Some seemed to be bearing Turkish travel documents — not a passport, but the kind of documents a country might give people without travel documents from their own countries, like political refugees. They spoke Shami Arabic. I suspect they were Syrian Muslim Brothers visiting Cairo.

One thing you can give Hamas credit for (unlike Hizbullah) is that they took a courageous decision not giving support to Assad. It's a dangerous one as the Syrian regime gets increasingly desperate.

Odd timing in Israel/Palestine

This is guest post by Paul Mutter.

Israeli security forces report that they have arrested at least 100 suspected members of Hamas and claim to have foiled multiple bombing and kidnapping plots. These actions would seem to indicate a severe setback for Hamas's influence in the Occupied Territories and undermine prospects for reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. With the UN vote approaching, the timing of the announcement can only help buttress the Netanyahu government's security credentials after the embarrassment of the August 18th Eilat attacks. The arrests also coincide with a major media and diplomatic campaign by the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian activists ahead of the UN vote for recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Israeli government states that it is not holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for the cells' presence in the Occupied Territories and that the IDF is "cooperating" with Ramallah to conduct further security sweeps and prepare for Palestinian demonstrations later this month. The following information has been officially released:

On Wednesday (September 7), it was released for publication that the IDF, Israel Security Agency and Israel Police prevented a major terrorist attack in Jerusalem last month.

The attack was thwarted after a terrorist had already entered Jerusalem planning to activate an explosive device on a bus or at a shopping mall in the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood [ed note: According to unnamed sources, the "explosive device" was being delivered to a suicide bomber - Ynet reports that the alleged suicide bomber, a 20-year old male from Hebron, is now in police custody].

The attack was prevented through joint operations by the IDF, ISA and police. During those operations, members of 13 terrorist cells (around 100 terrorists) were arrested. The detained terrorists included some senior operatives.

The ISA has noted that Hamas has been trying to rehabilitate its military infrastructure in Judea and Samaria in order to carry out attacks against Israeli targets.

According to the ISA, Hamas leadership abroad (in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) has provided funding, guidance and training for the establishment of terrorist infrastructure. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been involved as well, attempting to move weaponry into Judea and Samaria and providing funding for terrorist activities.

Questioning of detained terrorists has revealed that they were instructed to carry out a kidnapping in order to bargain for the release of prisoners [according to media reports, these capture operations constituted the cells' main operational preparations].

Some of those arrested are being linked to a bus bombing in Jerusalem this past March. Connections with Hamas cells and fundraisers in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and China have been alluded to by the IDF and Shin Bet.

Few of the arrested individuals have yet been identified, though the Israeli media report that most of those being held in custody are "repeat offenders." These arrests follow the detention of amnestied Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef (better known as the father of the Shin Bet's former Hamas double agent Mosab Hassan Yousef).

Regarding that arrest, Defense Minister Ehud Barak had this to say, which reflects the Israeli government's position on these most recent arrests:

"Readiness is very high. We are determined to strike at those carrying out the attacks, to take action as much as possible to intercept the attack and we are reiterating that responsibility stems from the Gaza Strip. It is not just Islamic Jihad but also Hamas."

It looks like every player in this game is running out of options these days.

US is now pro-Taliban, but still anti-Hamas

Helena Cobban makes a good point: U.S. supports Taliban talks; Still opposing Hamas??

So here are Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and SecDef Bob Gates now saying they support-- and are giving active support to-- the Afghan government's initiative to negotiate with the Taliban. But the U.S. government continues to completely oppose any attempt by any parties, Palestinian or other, to reach out and deal with the Hamas government that, lest we forget, was democratically elected in Palestine in January 2006. How does that work again? And why?

So you back negotiations the antediluvian crazies who hosted the people who killed 3000 of your citizens, but can't touch the people who never attacked you, were legitimately elected and are defending their homeland. Makes a lot of sense.

Lexington and Hamas

I am a fan of the Lexington blog, by the United States editor of the The Economist, who also pens a column in the magazine. He recently had a fine call to build that mosque in reaction to the Park51 controversy. But I have to disagree with a recent post on Hamas, which endorsed the Middle East Quartet's position that Hamas must accept pre-conditions to enter negotiations:

I was delighted at the beginning of this week's Middle East peace summit in Washington to hear George Mitchell, America's peace envoy, nail the much-quoted argument that Hamas should be invited into the peace process in Palestine, just like the IRA was in Northern Ireland. This is what he said:

“Let me say they’re very different… And while we should learn what we can from other processes, each is unique... But on the central point, the reality is that in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, the political party that is affiliated with the IRA, did not enter the negotiations until after 15 months had elapsed in the negotiations, and only then because they met two central conditions that had been established. The first was a ceasefire, and the second was a publicly stated commitment to what came to be known as the Mitchell Principles because I was the chairman of the commission that established them.”

Exactly. Of course there will be no final deal on Palestine without the acquiescence of Hamas, which represents at least half of the Palestinian movement and controls the Gaza Strip. Of course it should be at the table at some point. But Hamas has so far locked itself out of the talks by its refusal to accept the three conditions laid down by the international community: a ceasefire, recognising Israel and abiding by previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. I understand why agreeing to these conditions is difficult for a movement with Hamas's history. But, please, no more IRA comparisons. 

This is disingenuous. First of all, the Mitchell Principles were a pre-condition for all participants in the talks, not just one.  This is important because the biggest feature of the Israel-Palestinian dynamic is imbalance between the two sides, compounded by imbalance in the way the "international community" (really only the United States) deals with them.

Secondly, they did not include any condition that entailed a specific outcome to negotiations, such as a recognition of the state of Israel. Especially when Israel does not recognize any of its own borders — it has never set them! What is Hamas supposed to recognize when it recognizes Israel? The 1967 line (not acceptable to any Israeli government so far)? Eretz Israel, between the Nile and Euphrates, that some still hold dear? The 1948 UN partition plan? You tell me. The whole point of the negotiations is to decide on borders. Or is Hamas supposed to recognize "Israel's right to exist" — in which case, where is the reciprocity when you have an Israeli government that is non-committal about the two-state solution.

Thirdly, both Lexington and Mitchell are forgetting that the Mitchell Principles were a) commitments to going towards certain goals (rejection of violence, disarmament of paramilitary factions, abiding by the terms of all-party negotiations, etc.) and b) not applied immediately, since there were still violent factions as negotiations went on. Clearly they are meant as guidelines to work towards, not prerequisites.

Beyond this, there has been absolutely no effort to woo Hamas into joining talks, or achieving Palestinian reconciliation so that more representative Palestinian negotiating team can come to the negotiations. Quite the opposite: the negotiating team that went to Washington is increasingly seen as unrepresentative of the Palestinians. Since both Fatah and Hamas officials (executive and legislative) have outstayed their electoral terms, neither can be said to be representative. Half of them even less. The lesson is that healing the Palestinian house should be a more important first step, especially when no one really has much faith in the current negotiations.

Lexington could have raised other, much more crucial issues about Hamas. Most notably, he could have asked whether it is truly interested in a negotiated settlement (there have been encouraging signs, but overall ambiguity remains) and is able to withstand pressure from allies that have their own interests to pursue (i.e. Iran and Syria). He could have also asked whether the current Israeli government should also be imposed conditions and pressures, most notably an immediate freeze of settlements, and an acceptance of past negotiations and UN resolutions (again here we find ambiguity, to say the least). It's a shame he didn't.   

Update: Here Henry Siegman says US Hamas policy blocks Middle East peace.

The Mabhouh tapes, remixed

"Smile you're on candid camera."

Having started watching the remarkable film released by the Dubai police showing the comings and goings of Mohamed Mabhouh and his assassins on CCTVs, I quickly became bored. The problem: no sound from all these cameras. If I'm going to sit down and watch 27 minutes of surveillance footage, I need a soundtrack. But what to choose?

"Soldier of love"Let's face it, the Mabhouh assassination was almost certainly carried out by our cousins the Israelis. And what are they known for, apart from assassinations, the Dahiyeh Doctrine and its mass targeting of civilians, and of course their traditional foods like hummus and falafel?

The answer: execrable, schmaltzy pop music (remember Dana International?)

So I grabbed the Mabhouh footage and added as a soundtrack the well-known (well, in Israel) singer Eyal Golan's 1999 album, Soldier of Love. Watch the results below — it grows on you.

Click here to view or right-click to download

I think beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and spy scandals, this video really shows to what extent to which all of our comings and goings are increasingly monitored. It's a little bit creepy — not just because this may be the world's first extensively taped assassination operation, but also because it leaves you with the sense that you are always being watched.

It's interesting that this assassination has gotten so much attention. Some of it, notably over the forgery of passports and identity theft, is entirely warranted. I hope the countries concerned will act strongly. But over the larger question of its impact on the conflict, we're still not sure what Mahbouh's death means. Was he an indispensable contact with the Iranians? What secrets died with him? What does it mean for Hamas, especially if reports that it was infiltrated are true? And what does it mean for its relations with Fatah if reports that former Fatah security men were involved are true? Beyond the pseudo-glamour of all this cloak-and-dagger stuff (and if you watch the tape, in fact it's hardly glamorous and the hit team looks like they're on a corporate team-building exercise), there are a lot of unanswered questions here. Not to mention, of course, what mega hit job is being planned to avenge both Mabhouh's and (for Hizbullah) Imad Mughnieyh's death... 

Now for some Mabhouh-related links: